Betty Maloney was a pioneer of bush gardening whose advice on finding serenity in the garden is as relevant now as it was half a century ago.
Words: Robin Powell
Meet Betty Maloney
Can you guess when this was written:
“To build a house we wantonly chop down all our trees and natural foliage, then plant some grass, the occasional shrub and potter about in our pastry cook flowerbed. We’ve become weekend slaves to gardens that really aren’t much good to live in. We’ve lost all chance of privacy and our houses, en masse, are just open sores on the hillsides.”
It could have been written last week by any of us looking in horror at the new suburban developments carving up bush on the outer edges of Sydney. But it was actually written in 1966 by the now renowned Sydney architect, Richard Leplastrier. It’s part of his foreword to Designing Bush Gardens by Betty Maloney and Jean Walker, whose book explains a different approach to making a garden in Australia's suburbs.
Naturalness with order
The two sisters were pioneers of bush gardening design, advocating ‘naturalness with order’. In 1964 they set up a landscape design consultancy and began designing domestic gardens that were abstractions of the Sydney bush, especially the Hawkesbury sandstone landscape they loved, planting only indigenous species and using local materials in construction. Designing Bush Gardens, published two years later, lays out their philosophy and offers clear instructions on how to achieve success. It was a hugely influential bestseller and became a required text for students of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Sydney.
The book’s heart is Betty’s own garden in Frenchs Forest, which is photographed in black and white, and illustrated through Betty’s charming plans and plant portraits. She and her husband Reginald had purchased the property in 1954, and instead of following the usual route for new homeowners they kept much of the bush on the block, and enhanced it to form a garden that became the most celebrated and best known bush garden in Australia.
"Naturalness with order"
Cut the lawn
Betty’s goal was to open people's eyes to the beauty of the bush, and to the ways in which a bush garden enhances a feeling of serenity and reduces stress. The first thing to do, she advises, is to give up on lawn. Instead ‘let a soft, restful carpet of fallen leaves and bark eliminate weeding.’ Collect more leaves and bark so that the cover is thick and varied in texture. “When the garden is completely covered it will appear larger (like the effect of wall to wall carpet) and more luxurious. Dropped leaves and petals will look attractive and natural, and not untidy as they do on lawns...The mower? Sell it, and buy yourself a few red flowering gums. Or a garden chair.”
Appreciating this garden ‘floor ‘ was key. Jean, a keen photographer, loved photographing what was at her feet - she once gave an entire slideshow of pictures of the ground, to a rapturous reception from her audience who felt they’d walked a bush path with her. She felt the ground was as evocative as a person’s skin and that paying attention to its textures offered a real sense of belonging.
Betty’s favourite leaf mulch was casuarina needles, and she was enthusiastic about the trees in all their forms, describing them as ‘breathtakingly beautiful when spangled with raindrops’. With an undisturbed mulch from the trees overhead, she advised, the wildflowers and orchids will reappear and ferns and mosses will spring up in cool shady areas.
“Let a soft, restful carpet of fallen leaves and bark eliminate weeding.”
The plans of Betty’s garden are laid out in the book and explained in detail. “The smaller the block,” she writes, “ the bigger the challenge to make the most of every square inch. Strive to give a feeling of security, roominess and complete privacy.” A stepping stone trail leads through flannel flowers and past a waratah (planted with fish heads beneath its roots for a private supply of nutrition) to a centrepiece of Sydney rock orchids that wowed visitors in spring. Native violets grow in the spaces between stones in the patio, climbers sprawl across a trellis, fences are hidden by fast-growing wattles and bottlebrush. She advises that if you have the chance, coordinate with your neighbour to raise the height of the paling fence above ground level and fill the gap with extra soil sloping towards the base of the fence. Not only does this offer a better planting area, the slope unites the form of the fence into the garden as a whole, rather than giving an unnatural right angle between ground and wall.
“The mower? Sell it, and buy yourself a few red flowering gums. Or a garden chair.”
Betty opened her garden every year and it inspired gardeners all over Sydney. Following her death in 2001, and the death of her husband the same year, the property was put on the market. The garden was photographed in November 2002, prior to its sale, and the photos are now in the Caroline Simpson Library at The Mint .
Though Betty’s garden can no longer be seen, her ideas are thriving in a new generation of writers like AB Bishop, whose 2018 book ‘Habitat’ urges gardeners to plant bush gardens; and designers like Philip Johnson, Kate Cullity, Jane Irwin, Sam Cox and Kath Gadd. Designing Bush Gardens is no longer in print but books can still be found in second hand shops.